One of the reasons I ever got to the point that I could hear God’s call for me was because of a woman who was a member of the church where Terry and I served as elders back in South Dakota. She was a strong believer in Christ and a strong evangelist. She was a native Korean and educated as a pediatrician, but she had given up her career to raise her children.We used to laugh and roll our eyes at the thought of stories she would tell of getting on an airplane, starting a conversation with the guy stuck in the seat next to her and the next thing he knew, she had pulled out a copy of the Gospel of John, with pertinent passages underlined, giving him the whole spiel about the new life to be found in Christ and then pressing the book into his hand to take with him and praying that he would come to know Christ. I don’t know how many times she did that but there were many. I know she always carried the Gospel of John around with her “just in case.” She was (and still is) always ready to share the Good News. I used to say a silent prayer whenever Jane was boarding an airplane; a prayer for whoever might get stuck sitting next to Jane and having to listen to her go on and on about Jesus.
But Jane also set an example for the rest of us in the way she lived out the call of God in her life, always seeking to learn more, to know more, to grow closer to God. Even at that, she was able to do it without condescension toward the rest of us. I mean Jane knew the Bible forwards, backwards and sideways – better than any of us – better than I do even now. And while Jane could certainly give a good lecture about this and about that, those lectures were more in the style of a mother lecturing her children out of love rather than a professor condescending to a student in order to share a vast amount of wisdom to one with such a feeble mind.
There was nothing puffed up about Jane’s knowledge of the Bible. There’s no doubt that Jane held strong opinions about right and wrong that were mediated by what she read in the Bible, but in sharing those opinions, the lecture itself was always mediated by love. She knew that without the love of Christ in her life, her message of evangelism would fall on deaf ears.
It was Jane that nagged me into a Bible study – on the Gospel of John (what else?) – and it was in the midst of that study that I began to hear God’s call to me. I will forever be grateful and indebted to this wonderful woman. It doesn’t mean that I agree with her all the time. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have arguments about what the Bible says or how it applies to our lives. But it was because of her prodding and her example that my own broken heart and closed mind were healed and opened by the Holy Spirit. Believe me, I was broken.
It took some prodding of my own, but every once in a while I could get Jane to tell me stories of what it was like to grow up in Korea under Communist rule and during the Korean War. After she came to trust Terry and me she began to share stories of being brought up by her grandmother and learning to live appropriately as a Korean girl in a culture much, much different than our own. It is sometimes hard to understand what Jane is saying because of her Korean accent, but the more we were around her, the clearer her words became to us. We have noticed that after long absences from her we still have difficulty picking up what she’s saying because we have to learn her Korean-English all over again. And yet, her English is superior to my Korean, which is non-existent.
Koreans, we learned, have many proverbs by which they live, handed down from generation to generation, and Jane shared many of those with me – most of which I have long forgotten. But there is one I recall distinctly that she said her grandmother taught her: Never stoop to tie your shoelaces when you’re walking through the neighbor’s watermelon patch.
“Never stoop to tie your shoelaces when you’re walking through the neighbor’s watermelon patch.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. Well, it’s as plain as the nose on your face, except, at the time, it wasn’t clear to me. It means don’t live in a way that gives anyone the wrong impression as to what your values are. In other words, we know our shoelace is untied. And we know that all we’re doing when we bend over is tying that shoelace. We possess that knowledge. But anyone looking at us from a distance would have no way of knowing that our shoelace in untied. In bending over to do what we know is the right thing, we give the impression that we’re doing something wrong – helping ourselves to someone else’s watermelon.
“Well, that’s not my problem,” we may think. “I know what I’m doing. If someone wants to jump to the wrong conclusion, I don’t care what they think.”
Yet it is our problem. If we believe we are Christians and we have a certain knowledge about what it means to be a Christian, then we should not get puffed up about it, Paul says in one of his letters to the Corinthians. We know our shoelaces are untied, but the person viewing us from across the field doesn’t know that. As Christians, Paul says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In other words, we should always be conscious of the fact that other people know we call ourselves Christians and that means we have to be very careful about the impressions we leave with them – whether they are Christians themselves or not. We have to be conscious all of the time that we are living for Christ and not for ourselves (or our shoelaces). In living for Christ, our first priority is to build up the love of Christ in and for one another.
But, Paul tells us, not everyone has this knowledge of what it is to be a Christian. And so, if someone sees us doing something that raises a question about our values, then we are taking liberties with our status of being Christians and, therefore, we can easily become a stumbling block for others.
Many Presbyterians enjoy an alcoholic beverage now and again. For most Presbyterians, I would say that alcohol is not a problem. But we also know that alcoholism is a disease. However, a Christian consuming alcohol in the presence of an alcoholic not only presents a temptation to that alcoholic, but conveys a “puffed up” attitude that comes from the knowledge that, “You might be an alcoholic, but I know I’m not, therefore, I can not only drink, I will drink, and I’ll drink any darn time I please and you’ll just have to deal with it.” It is for this reason that as a pastor, I serve only grape juice during times of communion.
Let’s take this outside the church and into the world, a world which is uncivil. Christians who force their individual beliefs on others, including other Christians, are simply puffed up about themselves, not Christ. They believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. It’s a very long way between Jane sharing the Gospel of John to some unsuspecting air traveler and using that time to pontificate about individual beliefs about right to life, choice, gun ownership, sexual preference, or a host of issues both liberal and conservative.
What is morally neutral for most of us, like wine or a poker game, can become a hazard, an impediment to someone else, not just because of their own weakness, but because they know that we call ourselves Christians and that implies a certain responsibility, a certain conscious effort to behave in what we call a Christian way. It is the reason that many folks won’t come to church – they use the excuse that the church is full of hypocrites. That’s precisely what church-attending Christians are: hypocrites; and that’s exactly why we attend church at all: to try to work through our divisive natures and live according to the way Christ teaches us. Unfortunately, many churches, liberal and conservative, take divisive political positions too that are based on a very narrow interpretation of scripture.
Practicing being a Christian is much like getting used to my friend Jane’s Korean English. The more I’m around it, the easier it is to understand it. The longer I am away from it, the more difficult it is for me to readily grasp what she is saying. Living as a Christian is hard because, in every single respect, living as a Christian means putting others, their feelings, their needs, their well-being ahead of ourselves and that includes our political thinking whether we think they are wrong or not. It is a delicate balancing act that we are called to do – weighing constantly how we live our lives for others, while taking care of ourselves at the same time.
Next time we bend over to tie our shoelaces or do anything that someone can see or hear and regardless of which political extreme from which we come, we must give thought to what those around us might be concluding about us, remembering that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
“… we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – 1 Corinthians 8:1b